ARBIL Iraq (Reuters) – Cloaked in Kurdish flags, thousands of people lined the roads to cheer on a military convoy headed for what was — until recently — an obscure Syrian border town, now the focus of a global war against the militants of Islamic State.
The Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga were on their way to help fellow Kurds defend Kobani in a battle that has assumed huge significance in the United States’ campaign to “degrade and destroy” the hardline Islamist insurgency.
It is unclear whether the small but heavily armed contingent of peshmerga will be enough to swing the battle, but the deployment is a potent display of unity between Kurdish groups that more often seek to undermine each other.
The unified front is being forged as Kurds emerge as the West’s most trusted and effective partner on the ground in both Iraq and Syria.
But preserving that unity be tricky, given the competing ambitions for leadership of the world’s more than 30 million Kurds, the majority of whom are Sunni Muslim, but who tend to identify more strongly with their ethnicity than religion.
Governments in each of the four countries across which they are spread – Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Iran – have tended to exploit internal Kurdish divisions to thwart their aspirations for independence.
“We all want the Kurdish people to be united,” said 33-year old Ayyoub Sheikho, who fled Kobani last month and is now living in a newly pitched row of tents at a refugee camp in Iraq’s Kurdistan region. “If we don’t unite we will be trampled on.”
Fuad Hussein, the Kurdistan president’s chief of staff, said Islamic State had “destroyed the borders”.
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